Did the Coleman Report Underestimate the Effect of Economic Status on Educational Outcomes?

Dear Commons Community,

Those of us who teach and follow education research issues know that the Coleman Report of 1966 entitled, Equality of Educational Opportunity, was one of the seminal studies on the effects of economic status and other indicators on student outcomes.  This report has been debated long and hard for decades but its results continue to be cited.  Earlier this year, two researchers John L. Rury and Argun Saatcioglu from the University of Kansas, published the findings of their inquiry on the subject specifically examining whether the Coleman Report underestimated the effect of economic status on educational outcomes.  Their article has been listed as one of the most popular articles in the Teachers College Record for 2015.  It is available at:  http://www.tcrecord.org/Content.asp?ContentID=17828  (subscription required).

Here is an excerpt of the findings.

“…the Coleman proxy does not mis-measure economic status. It appears simply to under-measure economic status, since it overlaps substantially with the IPUMS income measure, despite its weaker performance as a predictor of educational outcomes.  

The foregoing account leaves little doubt that the Coleman Report underestimated the effect of economic status on the educational accomplishments of children in the mid-1960s.  Recent analyses by Geoffrey Borman and his collaborators have demonstrated that Coleman also underestimated the contributions of school-level factors to student success, particularly in achievement. But in replicating Coleman’s analysis, Borman et al also used his measures of social and economic status.  (Borman and Dowling, 2010; Konstantopoulos and Borman, 2011)  While our analysis cannot consider direct measures of achievement as an outcome, we do point to limitations in Coleman’s “Economic Standing” factor in accounting for variation in educational attainment.  Given this, it seems quite likely that the Coleman Report also underestimated the relationship of economic status to educational achievement at the time, as did the recent Borman et al re-analysis of the EEO Survey data.”  

As suggested earlier, we do not believe that the findings of this brief analysis fundamentally change the tenor of Coleman’s findings.  Even with its limitations, his measure of “Economic Level” combined with parental education indicators was robust enough to demonstrate that socio-economic status was the principal determinant of educational success, a finding replicated in the Borman et al work.  Indeed, our analysis suggests that parental education was a far more decisive factor, perhaps compensating somewhat for the weakness in his economic status measure. Thus we do not want to suggest that a dramatic reconsideration of the effect of income on school outcomes is in order. Rather than a fundamental reassessment of Coleman, we believe this discussion offers an instructive episode in the history of educational research, pointing to the need for precise measures of economic status in large-scale analyses of educational outcomes…  

If there is a lesson in this, it is that researchers should be quite deliberate in constructing proxy measures for social and economic status.”

Congratulations to Rury and Saatcioglu.   They have made an important addition to our knowledge base on this issue.




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